America’s youth soccer problems aren’t just America’s
Covering the NSCAA Convention has given me a front-row seat to watch some changes sweep across the soccer coaching community.
I don't write much about youth soccer on here, and that's on purpose.
The main reason why is that I cover pro teams, and I think that's what this space mainly ought to be about.
But I also didn't play organized soccer growing up, so I haven't had much experience with our vast youth development system. The most memorable moment I had playing the game growing up came on a rainy afternoon in fourth grade, when one of my shoes got stuck in the mud as I was kicking the ball. The ball and my right foot moved, but the shoe did not.
My soccer skills have gotten progressively worse ever since. Thankfully, my writing skills have gotten better.
(I don't remember all the details, but I think I started writing for my middle school's newspaper at around the same time that my playing career ended. I'm sure it was just a coincidence.)
Even though I don't write about youth soccer much, it's still impossible to ignore. Whether in cities, suburbs or rural areas, the vast American youth soccer system has a huge role in our player development system.
That system has undergone massive changes in recent years, as we all know. Instead of wanting kids to play for fun and maybe a college scholarship, now there's a real focus on professional development, club academies and the U.S. national team system.
Covering the NSCAA Convention has given me a front-row seat to watch those changes sweep across the soccer coaching community. Even in just the last five years, the tone of the conversation has shifted dramatically.
And there are more examples every day, too many to count. I'm sure many of you read the piece I wrote on scouting players in America's big cities earlier this week.
Friday's Guardian newspaper in England featured a big profile of Gedion Zelalem, a 16-year-old rising star at Arsenal who played youth soccer in Olney, Md., for seven years growing up. He is as much a product of American soccer as Jermaine Jones, Hérculez Gómez and Graham Zusi, even though Zelalem likely won't end up playing for the U.S. national team.
(Indeed, there are questions about whether Zelalem is even eligible, since he doesn't have a U.S. passport.)
For as much change as there has been, though, there is still a swath of the community that still thinks in old ways. In particular, they value short-term thinking over long-term planning.
For you, as a soccer fan - or as a soccer parent, or player, whatever - do you care more about wins and losses or skill development? Do you care more about a free ride to college or a professional career that might not come with a high-level education? And how much of an emotional investment should parents make in what their kids do on the field?
Those questions aren't new, and they might never go away. In fact, you can make a good case that they shouldn't.
The final seminar I attended at last week's NSCAA Convention featured a speaker who, like many others in town, had some answers of his own. But he didn't come from a place you might expect.
He came from Canada, by way of New Zealand.
Alex Chiet is a native Kiwi who moved to Toronto in 2011 to become the chief technical officer of the Ontario Soccer Association. His job was to help implement a long-term player development plan that was created by the OSA in 2011.
You might have already heard about some of what the OSA has gone through, because two people who are involved with it are quite prominent on the soccer social media scene. I have to disclaim that they are both good friends of mine, and they tipped me off to the existence of Chiet's seminar.
One is Jason de Vos, the color analyst for MLS broadcasts on TSN. In addition to his broadcasting work, he was the technical director of Canada's largest youth soccer club, Oakville Soccer, from 2010 to 2012. De Vos has had a big role in shaping the OSA's development strategy, and he often uses his Twitter account as a bullhorn.
The other is Ben Rycroft, who founded CanadianSoccerNews.com in 2008. From there, he became a columnist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's website, and led a big investigation into match-fixing in Canadian semi-pro soccer. Most recently, he became the Canada columnist for World Soccer magazine.
Last month, Rycroft stepped down from CSN to run the OSA's media relations. He wrote a great essay about why he made the move that you can read here.
Thanks to de Vos and Rycroft, I ended up in a conference room at the Pennsylvania Convention Center that was a bit off the beaten path. I wasn't sure what I was in for, but I'm glad I made the trip.
Chiet's seminar was entitled "Pushing Through The Predictable Pushback." For as the OSA implemented its LTPD strategy, the pushback was indeed predictable.
It came mainly from people who benefitted from the old system. Most of those people were parents who had made a big emotional investment in their kids, and coaches whose job security was based on wins and losses.
As Chiet spoke, I tweeted out a few highlights from the plan. The most controversial, not surprisingly, was a mandate to eliminate all scores and standings from under-8 to under-12 age groups. There was also a mandate to eliminate promotion and relegation in all under-12 leagues, whereas in the past there had been pro/rel down to the under-9 level.
When Chiet was done speaking, I sat down with him for a few minutes to talk about the OSA's progress during his tenure, and what Americans can learn from it.
The first question I have is one that I have run into with a lot of people that I have met who are very invested in youth soccer. How do you orient coaches away from the win-at-all-costs mentality when their jobs are based on results?
You've got to approach that change at a variety of levels. To start with, one thing would be national direction. Showing that this is a national initiative, with evidence that supports why the change is happening.
Secondly, it's about education. It's got to be part of a bigger plan, and they've got to see where they fit in the plan. We may be leading the change as a provincial body, but unless they are getting the messages down at the club boards, the district boards - if you can get into the administrational level of governance, and there's understanding and buy-in, then it helps make those changes at a grassroots level.
If the club philosophy supports it, if the provincial philosophy and the national philosophy support it, then you've got a better chance of shifting that mindset.
I've been coming to NSCAA conventions for five years now, and I've seen a dramatic change in the message that has been put forward. Instead of the end being college scholarships for kids, it's now getting those kids into professional club academies, and ultimately into the national team system.
That has disrupted a hierarchy of people who were entrenched in the old system off of perches where they were comfortable. I know you are engaging in a kind of disruption too, and that your ultimate new goal is player development for the national team. So I was wondering if you could talk about what the end to the means of the old system was, where the American equivalent is a college scholarship.
It's probably tricky for me in the position I'm in, being three years in the role and not being Canadian, to know what the goal was. From the research we've done and the technical advisory group that has driven the changes within Ontario, the goal would have been national honors. It's as simple as that. The college scholarship path wasn't as popular or as known.
That has been the more common rite of passage of late, and it will continue to be, but we also want to open up pathways within our own country. So don't get me wrong - it's a wonderful pathway for some athletes, but we also need to work within our own system in Canada and build our own Canadian system.
The message we are trying to project is, "Reach your potential in the system, which will help facilitate that." There will be different goals for different individuals, but the key thing is that you stay active and stay involved.
Yes, when you talk about unsettling people in a system who are entrenched, they are [in Canada]. But if you come with the evidence and you come with the picture and you come with the rationale, then it helps make that shift. You've just got to get that message to the right places.
With that said, can you explain some of the structural changes that have been put in place so far? And I know they haven't just been at the OSA level, but with new leadership at the Canadian Soccer Association as well.
From a CSA perspective, they've moved from a membership board to a skill-set board. They've restructured the governance of Canadian soccer so that rather than it being elected membership and representation, they've moved to a process driven by skill sets. There's a percentage that comes from the membership, but it's about having the right people to drive forward a national direction.
That same governance change hasn't happened at provincial and territorial levels [yet]. It's on the agenda. The Ontario Soccer Association is very much looking to move through changes at the governance level, seeing how important it is.
Structural change has only happened at a national level, but in lieu of the structural change throughout the system, there has been clear direction. That's what the long-term player development plan has done. It has given us the framework to drive the changes at a provincial level.
The membership-based CSA structure sounds like the way the U.S. Soccer Federation was run many years ago, with little fiefdoms all trying to get their way. And the new CSA structure, under president Victor Montagliani, sounds more like the modern USSF structure, which is a lot more focused and unified.
There is a similar sort of approach, yeah. The best interests of the player and the game were lost at times in the past, and there were political motives that drive things.
So how important is it to now have started that process of oriented the Canadian game toward getting everyone to go in the same direction?
It's critical, and I think that first step from the national body - going through that restructuring from a governance perspective - is best practice that needs to flow down.
I know that Victor and the CSA have supported our initial transition. We had a retreat at our last meeting where for two days it was all governance. Victor spoke to the benefits of the change, and our board is now taking that information to start to work through similar change.
The fact that your national body is leading in that direction and speaking to the importance of it, and we're seeing the benefits, is critical.
Some of those things couldn't happen quicker. Because with all due respect to our current board, who have been very respectful of the things we're doing, we've got 28 people at a table and they're representing a region. They do a good job of that, but sometimes putting what's best for our province and what's in alignment with our country [first], and taking themselves and their membership away from that decision, is difficult.
At this point, the soccer development community in the United States is probably pulling the most in the same direction that it ever has. I look at the three big provinces in Canada - Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia - and it looks like they each have different priorities.
I'll grant that I'm an outsider, and that as an American I see the big markets in Canada above all else. But those differences seem pretty evident. How hard have they been to overcome?
From what I've heard, there were national meetings not too long ago, maybe four years, where territories and provinces wouldn't even be in the same room. People wouldn't come, people wouldn't talk.
But that has changed a lot at the CSA level. Now there's complete buy-in. You've got provinces wanting to work together, and that long-term player development has been the framework. So you've seen a real momentum shift, a need for empowerment and a need for sharing.
The Quebec technical director was here today. That just speaks to the fact that we are aligned, and are moving a national agenda wherever we are in Canada. So the appetite for change is definitely there, and we are working with our national body as we move forward.
How much has hosting the 2015 women's World Cup been a catalyst for that change? Everyone knows how big an effect the 1994 men's World Cup had on the United States, and though the women's tournament isn't as big, it is still a major event.
The opportunity to have such a showpiece for the game on your back doorstep is a huge occasion. And the fact that the team has touched some success in reaching the podium at the [2012 London] Olympics means that you have captivated a nation. So you've got a whole nation that's excited about what the women's World Cup is going to bring.
That opens up many avenues for us as a sport, many opportunities to leverage, and the real legacy of that is what we are here today talking about. There are a lot of strategies that we are going to benefit from.
You've obviously put some plans out there that have stirred the pot, especially the elimination of scores, standings and promotion and relegation. And I saw someone say in one of the videos you showed today that not having scores doesn't make kids less competitive, because they're competitive by nature. Now they just know they can make mistakes and keep going, and not get too down on themselves.
So that leads me to ask how much the new rules are about the kids instead of the parents, and getting them off their kids' backs. Because whatever the parents are feeling, especially with young kids, is probably going to get transferred to the kids at some point.
I'd say it's all about the parents, and that's part of the challenge we've got. The parents are living vicariously through their kids.
We've done the research. Our manager of grassroots development has gone out through our province and connected with kids away from their parents, and has gone through a host of questions about why they play the sport.
We're processing the results, and what we see from what we have looked at is the kids give eight different reasons why they play sport - keep fit, make friends, learn new skills, win a trophy, those sorts of things...
I would hope that having fun is in there somewhere.
Just making sure.
Ha. Yeah. Anyway, they are give eight or nine different reasons [from which to answer the question of] why they play. And they [parents] don't even get on the list of priorities.
So it's very clear to us - obviously what we are doing needs to be right for Canada and for our kids, but we've seen the research worldwide. It is further reinforcing that it's exactly what you're saying: it's the parents that are putting unnecessary pressure on kids to perform.
This is what leads to dropouts, and why we don't develop technically and tactically the way we would like. So much pressure depends on the outcome, the result.
Every kid is different. Every kid develops at different rates. Everyone talks about wanting to create the Messis and Ronaldos. Well, how creative are you going to be if there's coaches and parents coming down on you to win from eight years of age, when you can hardly pass or trap a ball?
Understanding the fundamentals, falling in love with the sport, being able to express yourself and develop and make friends - that's the whole thrust behind getting this great foundation of grassroots and physical literacy.
From there, the kids can move on to play for life, or they have the building blocks, to go on and be that creative, right-minded player who's going to help build our national team if that's the pathway they choose.